The result of a ballot on industrial action sent to all members of the U.K. Society of Radiographers (SoR) working in the National Health Service (NHS) is expected by Friday. The outcome will determine what action will be taken over the three-year pay freeze announced in May, and SoR officials don't seem in the mood for compromise.
On Monday, the U.K. Royal College of Midwives announced that 82% of its members voted in support of a strike -- the first time they have ever been balloted on industrial action. They will join other staff, including nurses, healthcare assistants, and porters, in a walk-out on 13 October.
The root cause of the growing unrest is that the pay freeze was announced despite the recommendation by the Independent Pay Review Body (IPRB) in April of a 1% increase in line with all public sector workers. At around the same time, a separate pay review body recommended an 11% pay raise for members of parliament (MPs).
Radiographers have shared the pain of austerity yet continued to deliver great services to their patients, wrote SoR President Karen Smith in an email to AuntMinnieEurope.com, and they deserve to see their levels of pay keep pace with inflation at the very least.
"It is completely outrageous and shameful that this coalition government is treating NHS staff in such a disrespectful and unfair way by not awarding at least a cost of living increase in pay now that the U.K. economy is recovering," she stated.
In common with other NHS workers, SoR members in recent years have received below inflation pay rises, which means that pay has reduced in value, said Richard Evans, CEO of SoR and a former radiographer.
"This year, the Secretary of State [Jeremy Hunt] has singled out NHS workers for worse treatment than anybody else with a pay freeze and no increase over the next two years either, despite recommendations of a 1% increase for public sector workers. This is unprecedented and has made our council very angry," he explained.
He said the SoR is working closely with other healthcare unions, including the Royal College of Midwives, because "the situation is so bad." The ballot asks members a simple question: Are they in favor of strike action, and/or action short of a strike?
"Our first priority is always patient care. This means that union members will give their employers plenty of warning so that arrangements can be made to cover emergency services during any strike," Evans said.
"Action short of a strike" or "work to rule" could mean members working no more than 37.5 hours a week. It also requires that staff only work within the grade that they are paid, to obviate so-called grade creep.
While SoR supports professional development for radiographers, particularly in light of the reliance on radiographer reporting in programs such as breast screening, and the creation of consultant radiographer posts to address workforce issues and improve patient services, Evans underlined the discrepancy in the NHS reward system that means Band (or level) 7 radiographers are sometimes only paid commensurately for sessions they report, while other tasks are paid at a lower rate.
"Doctors aren't paid any less for their administrative tasks, so why are radiographers? The pay grade structure is not allowing progress," he noted.
He further explained that despite the NHS' 2004 Agenda for Change (AfC) pay agreement policy that allows for the creation of autonomous Band 6 radiographers, rules were being bent to keep them at Band 5 and cut costs. At the same time, understaffing means they are still expected to carry out tasks expected of higher grade practitioners, according to Evans. Radiographers, therefore, were not appropriately paid for advancing skills that were proving vital to the daily running of departments.
"Work to rule would seriously impact current services," he said.
Work pressures on radiographers
Paul Arnold, radiography lecturer at Bradford University, said the huge increase in diagnostics over the past 10 years, seven of which have been in recession, has placed enormous pressure on NHS radiographers.
Because advanced technology has improved workflow, the NHS has effectively cut radiography posts when compared with the increased imaging load, while radiographers are expected to work faster and for longer hours. Furthermore, because below inflation pay and increasing examinations yield more work for less pay, staff is less inclined to go the extra unpaid mile, he said.
"Many radiographers were already disenchanted after the AfC, prior to which managers were generally on the floor. Now they are often detached and have different agendas, goals, and patient throughput targets that have caused a lot of tension with clinical staff," Arnold said, who underlines that his views are not necessarily representative of the university or SoR.
If wages fall back any further, the government will claim the work can be done by lower skilled and lower paid workers, effectively de-skilling the radiography workforce, he added.
While radiographers' goodwill still exists for colleagues and patients, Arnold highlights the underlying cause of the friction. "If you are a radiographer on the front line with decisions cascaded down from the people at the top who are getting a raise in their salaries, then these unequal austerity measures are bound to cause resentment."
Words of support
Others have words of support for the SoR's stance.
"Radiographers have been at the forefront of bringing about change in the NHS, with role development to alleviate pressure centering around x-ray reporting. They are now in a difficult situation," said Stewart Whitley, treasurer of the International Society of Radiographers and Radiography Technicians (ISRRT) and founder of the consultancy U.K. Radiology Advisory Services. "Striking is always a last resort but is understandable and management should be sympathetic if there is a backup in place for emergency cases."
The ballot will help to bring the plight of hardworking NHS staff to the public's and government's attention and hopefully provide an idea of opinion -- and of what people are prepared to do -- before such a serious course of action, he added.
Helen Adamson, senior CT radiographer at the Mid Yorkshire Trust and regional SoR representative for Yorkshire and North Trent, believes that industrial action is the only way the government will reassess a potential increase.
"NHS salaries are worth approximately 11% less in real terms than they were worth four years ago due to below inflation increases or no increase at all. Whilst MPs stand to gain an 11% increase this year alone. This is disgraceful! The government has shown contempt for radiographers, and other NHS professionals and no regard for the safety of patients and the quality of service.
"The government also wants to introduce legislation whereby only if 40% of the members respond [to the ballot] will they be allowed to take industrial action so it is vital that as radiographers we all vote to show that we are together on this!" she said.
She hopes the ballot will result in at least a review of NHS wages and that staff receive an increase of 1% minimum. This increase should be given to all staff not just those that are at the top of their band as the government offered last year, she added. It should also show that radiographers and other NHS staff will not be discriminated against when other public sector workers have received pay increases.